Code Switch
2:41 pm
Fri April 12, 2013

A Code-Switching Tour Of L.A.'s Chinatown

For this post, we asked Calvin Ho, a graduate student at UCLA who studies immigrant communities, to help us visualize code-switching. Here's his take:

Welcome to the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, Los Angeles. My name is Calvin, and I will be your guide today. I didn't grow up in Chinatown, but I've been spending a lot of time here lately for both work and play. It's a really fascinating neighborhood, one that is far more diverse than the name may suggest.

Let's walk down Broadway, the main thoroughfare in Chinatown. Here you see shops and restaurants advertising their wares with brightly colored signs in multiple languages. One of my favorite storefronts is that of Trieu Vinh Pacific Restaurant near the corner of Broadway and College. I've never actually stepped foot in the restaurant, but the signs in the window are so compelling that I like to point it out when I take visitors around the neighborhood.

The restaurant lists the dishes that it offers on the window in Chinese, Vietnamese, English, and Spanish. The Chinese list tells me the owners are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, with ancestral roots in Chaozhou, China. That's not surprising, since many ethnic Chinese refugees ended up settling in Chinatown during and after the Vietnam War. What really draws me to this storefront, though, is the list of dishes in Spanish on the other side of the window.

The lettering is rainbow-colored: red on one line, then blue, yellow, orange and green. The text is pretty interesting, too. Egg rolls, wonton soup, and sweet and sour pork. In contrast, the Chinese text on the other side of the window lists mostly noodle soups, the dishes that put Chaozhou on the Chinese culinary map. It seems that Chinese-speaking and Spanish-speaking customers come to this restaurant seeking very different kinds of food.

Part of the reason why I like to show people around Chinatown is because signs like these are everywhere. These signs are worth so much more than the literal meaning of the words they use. They tell a story about the neighborhood and the people who live and work there. They tell us about flows of people, ideas, foods, and cultures, and how all of these combine and recombine in a multicultural metropolis.

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley on the eastern flank of Los Angeles, where East Asian, Southeast Asian, and Latin American immigrants live side-by-side. Every day, I'd pass by multilingual signs: mostly English and Spanish, but also English and Chinese, English and Vietnamese, or sometimes all of those languages at once. I never thought about them until I left for college in small-town Pennsylvania and realized how much I missed this visual evidence of diversity and multiculturalism.

Now, I'm a graduate student at UCLA studying immigration and immigrant communities. My work isn't about signs or visual culture, but I pass by these multilingual, multicultural signs every day. It's really fascinating how the signs change as you move across town. One day I tried to avoid traffic by taking surface streets instead of the freeway to get from the Westside to the Eastside. Each neighborhood I drove past had a different brand of beer on the billboards: Hite (Koreatown), Singha (Thai Town), and then Miller Light, en español (Echo Park).

When I got my first smartphone last year, I started to take pictures of some of the more interesting signs I came across in my travels around the city. I had never taken an art or photography class in my life, but like many other smartphone-toting twenty-somethings around the world, I snapped photos, applied faux-retro filters to them on Instagram, and shared them with my friends on Facebook. Eventually, I decided to open a blog on Tumblr called Migrantography to share these photos with a larger audience.

Here I've shared with you some of my favorite sign pictures that I've taken in the past year. Some of them have attractive lettering and design, while others are humdrum and utilitarian. They all speak volumes about how migrants from all over the world make a space for themselves (both literally and figuratively) in a booming global city. They change the environment, but the environment also changes them, and what results is a unique and vibrant mix of cultures, languages, and peoples.

Calvin N. Ho is a graduate student in sociology at UCLA. Follow him on Twitter at @calvinhyj.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.